The association for foreign service officers has an annual award it gives to U.S. diplomats who have stood up to the powers that be at the State Department — but the organization is struggling to find anyone worthy of the honor.
The American Foreign Service Association’s prestigious “dissent” awards are supposed to recognize diplomats who buck orthodoxy, and might seem to be a gold mine of opportunity in a department under fire for diplomatic security failures in Benghazi, Libya, and other suspected management problems.
Now, for the fifth time in seven years, the association has found no one worthy of the Herter Award, which is supposed to go to a senior-level foreign service employee who has shown “intellectual courage to challenge the system from within, to question the status quo and take a stand, no matter the sensitivity of the issue or the consequences of their actions.”
Also, four times since 2007, nobody has won the equally respected and similarly characterized Harris and Harriman awards for foreign service specialists and entry-level employees.
On its face, the trend suggests the Foggy Bottom’s rank and file is less willing to take a stand against the Obama administration’s foreign policy positions. But State Department officials cautioned against pinning the downturn to employees being friendlier to a Democratic administration — because the trend took hold before Barack Obama’s 2008 ascension to the White House.
Alternatively, some speculate that the current crop of American diplomats may be less political than those of a decade ago, when three foreign service officers resigned in protest of President Bush’s preparations to invade Iraq.
Others suggest that career State Department employees are increasingly fearful of their politically appointed bosses and colleagues, regardless of whether they were chosen by Democratic or Republican administrations.
“There is a subtext of politics,” said Susan Johnson, president of the American Foreign Service Association (AFSA). “Especially for senior-level people, everything has become more politicized.”
Rise of the ‘politically appointed’
During the past 40 years, she said, there has been an explosion in the number of leadership-level positions at the State Department and in the number of those positions filled by “politically appointed” individuals.
In 1975, Foggy Bottom had 18 deputy secretary, undersecretary, assistant secretary and “counselor of the department” positions. Eleven — roughly 61 percent — were filled by career foreign service employees. The other seven posts went to political appointees.
As of last year, according to data compiled by AFSA, the number of leadership positions had nearly doubled to 36, with the strong majority — roughly 67 percent — now filled by political appointees.
The result, said Mrs. Johnson, is “a lot more political input and involvement in policy decision-making and policy implementation because there are many more political appointees at increasingly lower levels.”
“You can expect that’s going to change the dynamic and the calculus of what kind of behavior you need to exhibit to get these positions,” she said. “If the politically appointed people are going to be making the decisions, they’re likely to pick people they know, and the people they know tend to be people who serve in Washington rather than in posts around the world.
“What does that mean to all of this and how does it trickle down to the issue of dissent? I don’t have the answer.”
AFSA is forming a “working group” to review its award programs, looking particularly at the nominating and selection process.
Mrs. Johnson said part of the problem is that a growing number of individuals are being nominated for actions that are “not clearly in our mind ‘dissent,’ as we had traditionally understood it.”
“My hypothesis,” she said, is that “in more recent years nominations for the awards have been written around what a decade ago would have been considered simply professional behavior and maybe in today’s foreign service what we once thought of as professionalism is now seen by some of our members as ‘dissent.’”
Mrs. Johnson insisted that the awards process is far from broken.
When AFSA holds its annual awards ceremony Thursday, there will be recipients for the 2013 Harriman Award and another known as the Rivkin Award.
With just two exceptions — 1983 and 2003 — the Rivkin Award for dissent has been given to midlevel foreign service employees every year since 1968.
On Thursday, the award will go to Theodore Lyng, who is being honored for fighting what until recently was a State Department policy of failing to deal directly with conservative Muslim leaders in Indonesia.
Mr. Lyng, according to an award summary provided to The Washington Times, “effectively and persuasively pointed out that interfaith dialogues, without the participation of conservative Muslim leaders, would only result in the United States preaching to the choir.”
AFSA will present this year’s Harriman Award to James T. Rider, whose resistance resulted in the closure of a legal loophole through which children of U.S. citizen parents were obtaining U.S. passports even if neither the children nor the parents spent any significant time inside the United States.
Before Mr. Rider acted, “children overseas were being granted U.S. citizenship who never would have qualified had they applied in the United States,” AFSA said.
Inside the ‘dissent channel’
Although the shadow of domestic politics hanging over Foggy Bottom may be undeniable, some say the traditionally apolitical culture remains intact.
“These days, people feel like they can be pretty transparent,” said one employee, who nevertheless agreed to speak only on the condition of anonymity.
The employee pointed to a firmly established and long-standing internal communications platform — known as the “dissent channel” — upon which career and other foreign service officers can air policy grievances.
The channel, which has existed for decades, is reserved for employees who want to make “responsible dissenting and alternative views on substantive foreign policy issues,” according to official State Department regulations.
The lack of nominees for AFSA dissent awards might suggest that the channel has dried up. But data obtained by The Times suggests otherwise.
Since 2007, 42 cables have been sent through the channel, compared with 38 during the seven previous years.
But there’s a catch: “The quality of messages in the last few years has not been what it was in previous years,” said one senior State Department official familiar with the dissent channel.
The senior official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because of the classified nature of the cables, said that during the past six years some cables “have been very, very good, but in many cases they suffer in that they provide a dissent on an existing policy without providing alternative recommendations to the policy.”
“My view is that the dissenter hasn’t thought it out sufficiently,” the official said. “It shows that people are a little hasty in hitting the button and not taking enough time to think these out carefully.”